At least three times from 2013 through 2019 the Oregon Legislature considered asking voters to overturn a piece of the state constitution that allows nonunanimous jury verdicts in all but first-degree murder trials. Three times lawmakers declined to do so.
This year they should go ahead and ask voters to overturn that small section of Article I, Sect. 11 of the constitution that allows conviction by a 10-2 jury vote in most criminal cases.
They should do so no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a Louisiana case that could overturn the Oregon provision. The high court’s ruling is expected later this year, and it’s unlikely to have been issued before the 2020 Legislature’s short session, which begins Feb. 3 and ends on March 7.
Waiting another year in the hope that the Supreme Court will outlaw nonunanimous juries simply won’t do.
For one thing, there’s evidence minorities are particularly impacted by nonunanimous jury votes. And, in fact, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, the 1934 amendment was proposed and approved by a 58-42% margin in part “to dampen the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on juries.”
Just as important, a referral from the Legislature presumably could be crafted so that the state could avoid the mess that might occur if lawmakers wait for the Supreme Court to rule. As Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum noted in a guest column published in The Oregonian recently, a court reversal could call thousands of convictions into question. Presumably a referral approved by voters could avoid many of those problems.
There’s not much time left for legislative leadership to get going, prepare a referral measure and keep it moving through the Legislature. Leaders should do just that, however, and see that a 2020 referral doesn’t molder in some corner of the Capitol until the session ends.